Its 8.30 in the morning in the Rondônia regional capital of Cacoal, Brazil. A cattle town with a frontier feel filled with 'Marlboro" men adorned with Stetson hats and cowboy boots. Four days of near continuous rainfall has given way to bright sunshine and temperatures in the 80s. Almir Narayamoga, 36 years old stockily built and born on the Amazon rainforest floor, is Chief of the Paiter Surui and he is just arriving at his office on the outskirts of Cacoal.
The Paiter Surui tribe of Indians occupy the '7 de setembro indigenous reserve' 250 thousand hectares of Amazonian rainforest spanning the Brazilian Midwest states of Rondônia and Mato Grosso. Their territory's name marks the date in 1969 when they first made contact with the "Branco" their name for the white man. A date that was to change the lives of the Surui people forever.
Their numbers in 1969, they claim, totalled some five thousand but their population was soon to be brought to near extinction by the effects of disease, hunger and the ravages of alcoholism brought on by contact with the outside world. A scenario that has been depressingly repeated across most of the planet once indigenous peoples have encountered modernity. The population reached a low point of just over 250 Surui left alive within just a few years from first contact.
Almirs story and his struggle to help his people started some 19 years ago when at the age of 17 he was elected chief of his clan a position his father Marimo Surui had also held. He was the first Surui to attend University spending 3 years in college studying Biology. At 23 years old he and another Brazilian activist Jose Maria dos Santos travelled to Washington to try and convince the World Bank to audit their loan to the state of Rondônia for the agricultural project 'Plana Flora'. Money and materials that had been allocated to go to indigenous tribes under the project had not been forthcoming. The World Bank subsequently restructured the method of their loan and the indigenous tribes got paid directly.
Other battles throughout the 1990s followed. He forced officials from Rondônia to sink wells for drinking water and build schools inside the Surui's reserve. He also turned his attention to halting the tribe’s population decline that was bringing them dangerously close to extinction. He advised families to have more children and enticed indigenous Indians from other tribes to join the Surui and live on their land. The population now stands at just over thirteen hundred spread across twenty-three villages on their reserve.
His efforts to organise his tribe has not come without a high degree of personal risk to Almir himself and his extended family. In the last 13 years 11 area tribal chiefs have been murdered, two from the Surui themselves. In 1997 he was forced to flee the reserve with the help of the American non-governmental organisation the Amazon Conservation Team when a bounty for his murder of one hundred thousand dollars was allegedly placed on his head by Loggers who were threatened by his actions to halt their illegal destruction of the rainforest on the reserve. He returned after 7 months and states when questioned, "Publicity is my best defence".
The Brazilian Amazonian Rainforest holds sixty percent of the world’s tropical forests and is the planets most biologically diverse ecosystem. A further nine countries bordering Brazil make up the Amazon Basin itself holding twenty percent of the worlds fresh water and producing twenty percent of the worlds oxygen. If it is destroyed then effectively so are we.
Today in Cacoal Almir is met by 3 forest engineers from "IDESAM" a non-governmental organisation that carries a mandate for the conservation of natural resources and sustainable development for indigenous peoples and is based in Manaus the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Their task today is to train the first 6 Surui to operate GPS equipment installed with a unique programme to help them precisely record the density of their rainforest. These Surui will spend 15 days in the rainforest measuring type, location and size of trees in order to calculate the amount of carbon being held in their homelands forests. They will be one of the first indigenous peoples to be paid by the industrialised world to protect the Amazon through carbon trading.
Almir addresses the meeting and decisions are quickly made by consensus on which six Surui will be tasked with the difficult work of penetrating the deepest areas of their reserves rainforest to verify the carbon it holds. After speaking Almir hands over to Forest Engineer Gabriel Carrero who starts the two-day training course at the end of which the Surui will have acquired yet another technological skill they can put to use within their lands.
Driving out of Cacoal on the RO 471 known locally as just 'the coffee road' we head for the village of Lapetanha home to the Chiefs tribe (the Indians living their being a mix of four clans which make up the Paiter Surui). During the hour long journey Almir outlines his strategy for the revival of the Tribe.
"My people have had many problems health, education, loss of culture and invasion of our territory. In 1997 we initiated a 50-year plan designed to reforest our lands and bring employment and pride back to our people. We decided not to fight anymore with our bows and arrows but to use computers the Internet and technology to bring attention to our situation. If we hadn’t done that then as a people we would have been finished and so would the rainforest. Training and education is now our kind of war, we know we have to adapt” he states.
Progress on the tarmac covered 'coffee road' comes to an abrupt halt and we take a sharp left onto a dirt track simply known as 'Line 11'. The four-wheel drive pickup we are travelling in comes into its element as it navigates ruts and crosses trees laid flat to span streams. Almir stops the vehicle at the entrance to the reserve, a point marked by a sign nailed to a tree and the visual return of the Rainforest itself, which has all but disappeared prior to reaching the reserve. He then walks into the forest to inspect some recently planted trees the Surui have laid. "This is part of our 50 year plan, we want to plant at least a million trees and return the rainforest to its pristine condition." he says as he walks.
Returning to the pickup we travel deeper into Surui territory eventually arriving at the village of Lapetanha. Electricity reached the village some 4 years ago; it has a school a church and 102 inhabitants. Three computers occupy their own room in the school, two a gift from Google Outreach the philanthropic arm of the Internet Company. Google visited the Surui after Almir in 2007 had decided to travel unannounced to their offices in California and make a personal plea for their help. Google brought technical training to the Surui through a series of workshops and the donation of the computers. However, only one of the computers was still working during our time at the village. When questioned when the others would be repaired Mopilaa a 20-year-old Surui replied "Soon."
Almir's vision is to completely digitize the reservation one day. Using blogs, video messaging and digital images as a way the Surui can communicate with the outside world and the outside world can communicate with them. Benefitting them with satellite imagery which allows them to be able to monitor their lands warning of illegal logging attempts or invasions from farmers bringing slash and burn agriculture. There site on Google earth will incorporate the ethno map of their land produced some years ago in partnership with the Amazon Conservation Team, it detail's the Surui's cultural and historical history.
"Alone we Surui cannot manage to reconstruct this region. We need the help of the whole world." Almir remarks as we leave the pickup. Standing in the shade of one of the Maloca's, a traditional dwelling built by the Surui, we are joined by the teams that will enter the Rainforest tasked with recording its carbon capacity. Vasco van Roosemallen head of the Amazon Conservation Team in Brazil has travelled from Brasilia to accompany the group on its first training day in the rainforest. Talking to us he says, "The great thing about the Surui is that they try to find their own solutions to the problems they face." He continues, " If you look at the Arc of Destruction of the Amazonian Rainforest the areas that still have forest are indigenous lands. They are absolutely crucial to holding back de-forestation."
Boarding another two pickup's the team’s travel as far as possible into the forest by dirt track. When the four wheel drives can manage no more its time to leave the vehicles and proceed by foot carrying water, machetes and the vital GPS equipment needed for mapping the location of the trees and hence their carbon content. Visibility through the dense undergrowth drops dramatically and Vasco points out "Humidity must be close to one hundred percent." Sweat pours down my, Vasco's and the two other non-indigenous Tree Engineers faces. Quickly all our clothing is wet through. Understandably the Surui handle the conditions better. Once we reach a halt and start to mark out the forest for the team’s first measurements we become a meal for much of the insects around us. Ants the size of your thumb that leave a vicious and fever inducing bite have to be avoided as I inadvertently kick over one of their floor level nests which doesn’t make me the most popular 'Branco' in the rainforest that day. After 20 minutes in these conditions I’ve personally had enough but we endure for another 3 hours until all are confident with the equipment they are using and crucially the GPS technology. After today’s training the teams will be spending a gruelling 15 days in the Jungle.
Returning to Lapethanha we are greeted by Surui children happily playing with a freedom now rarely scene in western cultures. Some Surui are making jewellery, toddlers are being washed by their mothers while other Surui are simply resting in hammocks. Through Readers Digests interpreter Louise Sherwood I talk again with Almir asking him if he feels hopeful for the future survival of the rainforest and his people. "A couple of years ago nobody thought there could be a black president of the United States but he's there. Eight years ago nobody believed Lula could be president of Brazil. Two or Three years ago nobody believed that we'd get all the loggers out of our lands but we did. It’s the start of change. Every day we believe that we will reach our ultimate goal. A better future for all."